Knowledge-first English teaching

Tod Brennan, @TodBrennanEng, is putting together a series of interviews with English teachers. This morning we chatted about the benefits of a knowledge-first approach to English teaching. The video link is below:

Do follow this series of interviews. They are bound to be fascinating.

Last week’s guest was Caroline Spalding on career progression:

Related posts:

Can we teach children how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge?

General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’


Question templates – an approach to improving analysis

A lot of the advice teachers receive about formulating good questions is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. According to Bloom’s, ‘creation’, ‘evaluation’ and ‘analysis’ questions – the higher-order questions – sit at the top of the pile. At the bottom sit their lower-order brethren, the ‘remember’ and ‘understand’ questions. The theory goes that if teachers ask more high-order questions and fewer lower-order questions, then their students will be encouraged to think more critically and deeply. And woe betide any teacher who expects his students to answer a knowledge recall question. He is merely encouraging flimsy rote learning.

Even though Bloom’s and similar questioning hierarchies are not without merit, they suffer from two obvious flaws. First, they are based on the assumption that knowledge and critical analysis are separate entities. In fact, they are completely enmeshed and often impossible to disentangle. Analysis always needs something to analyse. Second, they are too generic. Different subjects require different types of question. Indeed, a skilled questioner adapts the style and form of the questions she asks according to the topic she is teaching and the children she is teaching it to. Questioning in maths lessons remains fundamentally different from questioning in English lessons.

Over the past few months I have been putting together an exhaustive list of what I call ‘analytical question templates’. These are generic question structures that provoke analytical and critical responses to texts. They are useful to English teachers but probably not to anyone else. Analysis and evaluation questions are difficult to design because they can easily become too vague or require too much guesswork on the student’s part. Often questions like ‘Why do you think the writer did this?’ or ‘Why do you think this might be significant?’ are too loose and not specific enough for a strong answer.

Therefore, I have tried to choose questions that usually lead to focused, accurate and interesting responses. These have been partly inspired by the ‘text-dependent questions’ explained by Doug Lemov, Colleen Drigg and Erica Woolway in  Reading Reconsidered. Because text-dependent questions are so tightly worded, students are compelled to read the text closely and to use textual evidence in their responses. The student cannot respond with a tangential comment – they must speak about the text. Nevertheless, I have also included some questions that might be less text-dependent, yet encourage the child to enter into the emotional context of the text.

The questions cover five foundational literary concepts: language and literary devices; characterisation; form and structure; contextual features; authorial intention. They can be used to provoke class discussions or as writing prompts. As students become accustomed to them, they could also design their own questions using the structures as prompts. Ultimately, however, the question list that follows is most useful as a planning tool.

Finally, please remember that the structures need to be reworded depending on the text.

So … ‘The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/ technique ________. What does this suggest about ______________?’ 

Becomes … ‘Priestley uses the adverb ‘coldly’ to describe Mrs Birling. What does this suggest about her relationship with the rest of her family?’

Or … ‘How does _______ connect to your prior knowledge of the text’s context? ‘

Becomes … ‘How does Stevenson’s description of the night-time streets connect to your prior knowledge of Victorian London?’

And: ‘The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/technique ___________ to _____________. Why do you think he uses _____ rather than ______________?’

Becomes: ‘Dickens use the simile ‘as solitary as an oyster’ to describe Scrooge. Why do you think he chose the adjective ‘solitary’ rather than, say, ‘cosy’?

You get the picture.

Finally, this is a work in progress. Please share any suggestions or alert me to any obvious omissions. The questions are below but you can download a Word copy from here. Oh, and do make sure you read Reading Reconsidered.

Language and linguistic devices

  1. Which words/phrases/sentences/techniques does the writer use to imply that _______________?
  2. The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/ technique ________. What does this suggest about ______________?
  3. Can you find two examples of __________? Which is the most interesting? Why?
  4. How does the word/phrase/sentence/technique___________ suggest that ___________________?
  5. The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/technique ___________ to _____________. Why do you think he uses _____ rather than ______________?
  6. What do we usually associate with __________? What might the writer have be been implying about _____________ by using this description?
  7. What feelings are usually connoted by _____________. How do you think these images help the reader to   ___________?
  8. Where have we seen the writer use _______ before? Why do you think the writer has chosen to use it again?
  9. The writer uses ___________. Why do you think he chose to use this technique at this point in the text?
  10. What kind of imagery do we see in the text? How does this help the reader to understand ____?


  1. What would you do if you were in the same situation as the character? Would you have behaved similarly or differently? Why?
  2. What attributes and qualities best describe the character? Where have we seen evidence to support this?
  3. What changes has the character undergone? Why have these changes happened? How do these changes transform the reader’s opinion of that character?
  4. What is the character’s hierarchical position in relation to the other characters in the book? Does this change depending on how we measure it?
  5. Is the reader positioned for or against the character? How does this reinforce the writer’s view about __________?
  6. Does the character conform to – or break – the social conventions of the time/place being written about? What evidence from the text supports this?
  7. Does the writer use the character to embody or symbolise any attitudes/ideas/central conflicts?
  8. How might two readers respond differently to the character and their actions? On what aspects might they agree and disagree?
  9. What do we learn about ________ from reading about this character?
  10. How would the story function without that character? What would be lost from the story?

Form and structure

  1. Can you summarise the sequence of events/ideas in the text?
  2. What does __________ at the start of the text make the reader think/feel/believe about ___________?
  3. What does ____________ at the end of the text leave the reader feeling about ________________?
  4. Why do you think that the writer chose to place ____________ before ___________?
  5. What are the major differences between the start and the end of the text? What do these imply about _________?
  6. What kind of narrative device is employed? How could you describe the ‘voice’ of the narrator? Why do you think the writer chose to use this device? How does it differ from other texts you have read?
  7. How are the internal structures of the book – chapters and paragraphs – organised? Why do you think that the writer made these decisions?
  8. Where does ____________change? How does this affect the reader’s attitude towards ______________________________?

Contextual features

  1. What does ___________ tell us about what it would have been like to have lived in the time and place the text is set?
  2. How does _______ connect to your prior knowledge of the text’s context?
  3. Which factors from the writer’s biography may have influenced aspects of the story?
  4. Which aspects of the writer’s contemporary society did he/she support/criticise?
  5. Do you believe that the writer created an accurate portrayal of the time in question? Were any aspects exaggerated or underplayed? Why do you think the writer chose to do this?
  6. What are the differences between how __________ would have been received in the writer’s time and how we receive it today?
  7. How does the text compare to other works from that period/by the same writer? How does it compare to works that came before and after?

Authorial intention

  1. Who were/are the writer’s target audience? How do you know this?
  2. What was the writer’s main purpose in writing the text?
  3. What is the writer’s attitude towards _____________?
  4. What do you believe that the writer wanted the reader to feel about _____________?
  5. How far do you agree with the writer’s attitude towards _______________?
  6. What do you think that the writer wanted to teach the reader about the human condition?
  7. If the writer could be with us today, what do you think she would have thought about ______________?
  8. If ___________ had been different, how might it change the reader’s attitude to ______________?
  9. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the writer’s argument about _____________?

See also:

Closed question quizzing: unfashionable yet effective

The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit?




The holy trinity of English teaching: direction, immersion and habit

Over the past couple of years it has become clear to me that the individual lesson is too simple a vehicle to be relied upon as the main driver of learning. That is not to say that lessons are unimportant in themselves, but that learning itself is too tricky and elusive to be calculated from the cumulative sum of a series of hour-long, bite-sized chunks of teaching. To me, this vision of learning presents a child with a situation not unlike being asked to clamber up a set of stairs with a raging inferno hot on his tail. Even if he gets to the top without being sizzled to a cinder, his chances of ever making it down again are very slim. Each stair – each unit of learning – burns away just as his foot leaves it.

Instead, our students need repetition, consolidation and extension; if not, their seeming progress can be little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

This problem is especially true of English teaching. Language learning is not speedy or linear or logical; in fact, it is slow and erratic and associative. It is the result of mastering and practising some fundamental concepts, but it also benefits from a virtuous cycle of discovery: the deeper we submerge ourselves, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more likely we are to dive deep again. Vocabulary research, for instance, suggests that young people absorb new words through multiple exposures in slightly different contexts. The lesson-by-lesson, unit-by-unit, year-by-year model can be too crude to manage this successfully.

We need a mature vision of English planning and teaching that appreciates the interplay between the short-term and the long-term, that recognises the conceptual and iterative nature of learning, and accepts the supporting roles that reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking all play in this process.

I like to think of English teaching in terms of three principles: direction, immersion and habit. A holy trinity, if you like.


‘Direction’ covers all the concepts, information and chunks of knowledge that we want students to learn and will direct them to learn. This might range from how to spell ‘onomatopeoia’ to knowing the events in Chapter 1 of Animal Farm to understanding how and why writers use imagery to represent their main ideas. This learning will, at times, be specific to one context; at other times, students will apply what they have learnt to a range of new reading, writing and speaking situations. This material can and should be planned for lesson-by-lesson, but it is even better to plan to revisit it so that students are less likely to forget. It is the stuff of ‘learning objectives’, ‘lesson plans’ and ‘curriculum maps’.

Image: @jasonramasami


If direction is about the depth and strength of learning, immersion is about breadth and diversity. We cannot expect students to remember everything they have been taught, and teachers cannot repeat everything students have been exposed to ad infinitum.  English classrooms should immerse students in language and ideas so that they also have the best chance of learning indirectly and through osmosis. Text choice and task choice are important here: in my view, children need to be constantly challenged to read and think beyond the confines of their world. Engagement and enjoyment are important to immersion but perhaps we should be making things ‘interesting’ rather than fun.

Image: @jasonramasami


Students consolidate and improve their reading and writing skills because they maintain good habits over time. Helping students to do this has to be one of the main priorities of the English teacher, and it is an area of planning that calls for a coherent long-term strategy because it is devilishly difficult to do (see this post). First, we must decide on the behavioural habits we need to inculcate in students: these might be to rigorously edit and improve their work independently, or to read every day for pleasure, or to give full and well-reasoned verbal explanations in response to teacher questioning, or to always consider alternative viewpoints when analysing a text. All of these are worthy aims. Whichever we choose, we have to work backwards from the habit, work out the best way to teach students how to get there and then maintain an unrelenting focus on it over an extended period of time. From my experience, the more habits I try to promote, the fewer my students take on board. Less is more in this case. Of course, once the habit is in place, new habits can be introduced slowly.


Image: @jasonramasami

So there you go: teach some material clearly and directly, and expect it to be learnt; create an environment where indirect learning becomes more likely; insist on those habits that are most conducive to long-term skill development. These can only be brought about through intelligent planning and a more subtle definition of what constitutes a good lesson.


The ideas in this post have been a precursor for a new and exciting long-term writing project that I am about to embark upon. I am looking to refine these thoughts so please share your opinion and let me know if there is anything blazingly obvious I have left out!

Thank you for reading.


In trying to do so much we do too little

in doing too much

Image: @jasonramasami

Recently, I asked a class of top-set year 11s to identify the verbs in a piece of writing. It was a seemingly simple activity that I had given them a few minutes to complete, yet it quickly became clear from the blank faces I was met with that my request had posed something of a problem: after five years of secondary school, a sizeable proportion of the group did not know what a verb was.

How many times in 11 years of schooling must they have encountered the term before? How many times must they have heard the word uttered from a teacher’s lips or seen it written up on a board? Yet despite numerous exposures, this relatively simple concept, one probably within the capacity of a bright 5 year-old, had slipped away and had hardly been grasped at all.  Of course, the humble verb is but the tip of the iceberg; the number of completely learnable terms and concepts which I have exposed my students to and they have have not learnt is too numerous to list.

This realisation, that so much of what I have taught has not been learnt, has been steadily dawning on me over the past year or so. It has set in motion a strange and vertiginous feeling, akin perhaps to trudging for many miles across a plateau in the hope of finding a place to spend the night, only to find oneself standing at the edge of a plunging, bottomless abyss.

Much has gone before, in my classroom and in others. Curricular have been jammed with sparkling ideas and concepts; lessons have overflowed with activities and ingenious new strategies; every inch of white board has been crammed with text and pictures and diagrams. Exercise books have been filled with words; hours of discussion have ricocheted between the classroom walls; synapses have sparked and connected in their billions. But still it is the same. So many children leave school knowing far less than we would hope them to.

The reasons for this are complex. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is one cause is wrong. Anybody who finds solace in an ideological or scientific explanation is probably only telling you half the story. Society, motivation and development all play a part, but I still think one of the causes has its roots in both curriculum and pedagogy. There is a paradox here: in trying to do so much we do too little.

My theory is that we try to throw too much at children, and that this is why so little of it sticks. A basic understanding of cognitive load theory can help us to conceptualise why over-stuffing lessons and curricular does not work. The human working memory – the part of the brain that processes new information – can only cope with a limited number amount of new information at one time. When it becomes ‘overloaded’, there is no room left to think, which can then prevent new information from reaching the destination it needs to get to: the long-term memory, where it can be stored indefinitely. (Alex Quigley usefully sums up how this works in this post on thinking hard.)

There are other reasons, too. One, which I have dubbed the as-the-crow-flies-error, lies in asking students to perform complex skills, like analysing a writer’s style, before being secure in the knowledge needed to be able to do this, such as understanding the text’s plot or comprehension of the writer’s language.

The recent drive to increase the level of ‘challenge’ in lessons is an important one, but only if this challenge is focused and achievable. I would argue that we should always aim for more depth and less breadth. Drawing on international comparisons, Tim Oates argues – here – that teachers should look to expand upon the current idea before progressing to the next ones. Take one idea and examine it in depth, rather than let five or six ideas be touched upon superficially. A concern with this approach, some might argue, is that it does not benefit our more-able students who will be forced to remain with topics that they are ready to move on from. However, with good planning and more imaginative and stretching questions, our more-able students might well benefit more from this approach than any other.

The beauty of this way of thinking is that we might achieve more success by doing less work than we already do. By stepping back, by deciding on what is most important (and then going home a little earlier) could we go some way towards helping students to learn things more securely?

What follows are the things I am currently working on in my role as English teacher; the principle behind them all, however, could extend into all aspects of school life:

  • Plan to teach only 1 or 2 new vocabulary words or concepts per lesson.
  • Give less feedback – i.e. set one target, not two, but give time and space over a number of lessons to work on it.
  • Limit the number of success criteria, or procedural processes, that students work on in one go. (I have a habit of asking students to do 5 or 6 new things in their work; it works better to use fewer so that they can really think about them.)
  • If a slide show is to be used, cut down the number of words per slide, and cut down the number of total slides . If they have to read something from the slide, allow time for that.
  • Plan for two or three tasks per lesson, no more. Revisit the same material but in slightly different ways.
  • Decide on the key, essential knowledge that must not be forgotten. Teach it, revisit it, test it … and repeat. Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers provide a useful model of how this could be organised.
  • Teach a bit, let the students write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Lesson over.

Ultimately, all this is about prioritisation, about separating the wheat from the chaff – and then ensuring that the wheat is learnt well.

And if you are prepared to take this jump, perhaps you will have the spare time to start visiting friends, reading books, doing the things you enjoy and, dare I say it, forgetting about work.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this video on the art of subtraction from Jason Ramasami, who illustrates this blog.)

How to ensure that feedback leads to real learning


Image: @jasonramasami

In our recent book, Making every lesson count, Shaun Allison and I have used the following diagram to introduce the idea that feedback is a two-way process:


The notion on the left, that feedback should inform planning, is often overlooked; instead, teacher-to-student feedback is very much the flavour of the month – to the extent that ‘quality of marking’ has now become an accepted measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. However, there is a logical error inherent in this way of thinking. Quality of feedback can only be contingent on the quality of the initial input. Harry, for example, might have received high-quality teaching and no written feedback from his teacher; Hannah, in another class, might have been the recipient of poor teaching and lots of remedial feedback. It is absurd to suggest that Harry’s teacher’s marking is of a lesser quality than Hannah’s teacher’s marking, without taking into account the quality of the initial teaching. If students are clearly making good progress, does it matter how much or how little red pen is in the books?

The craze for written feedback might also lead to a reliance on flimsy teaching methods. The mistakes I notice in my students’ written work are often the results of conceptual knowledge gaps or ingrained bad habits. Sometimes they are a combination of the two, and these cannot be solved by a couple of lines of red biro. Let’s say I write, ‘You need to use the possessive apostrophe accurately’ in a child’s exercise book. This is only useful if: a) he already knows and understands the concept of the possessive apostrophe, and b) the feedback reminds him to use the possessive apostrophe in his future writing. If these requirements are not met, then my written feedback will not solve the problem alone. Only focussed teaching and/or sustained practice over time will lead to a genuine improvement.

DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time), when the class can begin to practise their mistakes, is a useful starting point. Too often, however, it only papers over the cracks. The most useful thing about looking at student work is that it provides us with a recipe for future action. We learn what we need to teach again or teach better; we learn about our students’ working habits and how they can be improved.

It is important that schools and departments provide teachers with the flexibility and space they need to respond to their classes. Schemes-of-work and plans should have built-in room for this; they should not be too rigid. Destinations should remain the same, even if the journey is very different for each teacher and each class. This term, we are starting fortnightly revision lessons with our year 10s. Not only will these allow us to review previous content, but they will allow us to revisit areas of general weakness too. The link between reflection and planning is crystal clear; it feels like a powerful process.

It is frustrating that reflective and responsive planning, unlike marking, is largely invisible. We cannot pin it down or measure it; it happens in a teacher’s thoughts. Perhaps it is the root of what we call ‘expertise’, where our knowledge of how to teach our subject meets our ever-growing understanding of our students’ learning. When we watch a successful teacher in action, we witness a complex array of behaviours. It is difficult to distinguish which of these strategies is the cause of her success; it is even more difficult to conceptualise the thoughtful planning that has carried her to this point in time.

How best to bring this tacit thinking to light? How best to learn from the best teaching? Shaun Allison and I have started interviewing some of our most successful teachers in an attempt to tap into what they do and why they do it. These interviews have been fascinating, but we are struggling to find the best ways of sharing this information. How do we use it to develop the practice of others? I also like the idea of ‘learning observations’, when a teacher coaches another right through the planning, teaching and reflection process, so that both the thinking and the action are modelled.

The best that teachers and leaders can do is to encourage not only a culture of learning and reflection, but also one of humility. At its best, the idea that there are ‘great’ or ‘outstanding’ teachers in a school will create a few over-inflated egos; at its worst, it will lead to division and resentment. I have learnt most from those teachers who are never afraid to say that they have got it wrong and that they are going to try it again another way.

When school leaders and subject leaders do this, and when the staff room is full of teachers talking about the problems they are trying to solve, this is when our students will really start to learn from feedback.

Related posts:

Feedback: let’s build it in, not add it on

The unbearable mystery of learning

knowing Images: @jasonramasami

We have always liked to holiday in European cities. Before our son was born, one of our habits was to take the metro to a random place beyond the predictability of the inner-city environs. One stop a few miles from the centre of Hamburg, the name of which I have long forgotten, comes to mind. We stepped onto a platform set in flat fields with nothing around apart from a tidy set of allotments to one side, and a gaggle of unfriendly, low-set apartments to the other. It was completely unremarkable in every way.

I can’t put my finger on why I enjoy visiting such empty places. However, one of the reasons might be to do with the mysterious sense of transience they evoke. It is strange how two large chunks of concrete, two long lines of steel and a corrugated iron roof can bring meaning to what was once emptiness. Before the metro line was constructed, did these fields mean anything to anyone other than the farmer who tilled them? Not so long ago, would they have even been considered a place at all?

For the woman sitting on the train on the way to work – flicking through her newspaper, perhaps, or sipping a coffee – this station and this field have a concrete meaning. They are a name on a map, joined by a straight blue line to two other names, one in each direction.

Yet for the farmer whose field has now been cut in two, this station and train line have another significance. Most likely, they are an unnecessary nuisance that add extra difficulty to his work. And for the Turkish grandfather, now too weak to leave his top floor apartment, the station and train line in the distance are a sharp reminder that this new, inexplicable world is fast leaving him behind.

As a society, as an education system and as teachers we create similar tube maps. These are our curricular, schemes of work and learning objectives. We choose, rightly or wrongly, the best getting-off points and we teach with these certainties in mind. This is simple, clear and logical. How could we do it any other way?

Yet what we often forget is that what we intend to teach is not necessarily what is experienced or learnt by the people and minds we tend to. The clear, well-connected tube maps we carry so comfortably ourselves are rarely, if ever, received as carbon-copy replicas by our students. Even though learning science seems to suggest that how we learn is remarkably similar, what we learn is often very personal indeed.

It never ceases to amaze me that despite my methodical, largely traditional approach to classroom teaching, my students learn such different things. While I aim for some degree of uniformity, it rarely happens; the input never seems to match the output. Yes, there are patterns, patterns they and I can learn from. Yet every essay is different and every spelling test shows a remarkable array of strengths and weaknesses. The same student on a another day can produce markedly different work.

Graham Nuthall estimated that around a third of an individual student’s learning is unique to them and is not learnt by others in the same classroom. Why? The reasons are myriad and complicated and involve a heady mix of prior knowledge, motivation, social relationships and contextual ‘in-the-moment’ factors.

I enjoyed reading this passage from John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) this week:

It has become clear over the year that these children see school almost entirely in terms of the day-to-day and hour-to-hour tasks that we impose on them. This is not at all the way the teacher thinks of it. The conscientious teacher thinks of himself as taking his students (at least part way) on a journey to some glorious destination, well worth the pains of the trip.

Perhaps we have gone some way towards reversing this discrepancy in recent years but I rather suspect that it still exists, even in the best schools. Many times, despite having shared what I thought to be clear learning objectives, my students will come to the next lesson asking “Are we still finishing off that sheet?” rather than “Are we still analysing Dickens’ use of language in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol?”

Other more recent thinkers, such as David Didau, have got me thinking about the invisibility and liminality of learning. What a student says and the work he produces do not tell us reliably whether he has learnt something or not. And, in the case of complex concepts, our students rarely know or don’t know something – they are often grappling in a space somewhere in between.


I think it is time to consign certainty to a place far away (maybe to a field somewhere in northern Germany?) and face up to the unbearable. Data and spreadsheets, and words like ‘progress’ and ‘impact’, are not completely meaningless; they have their uses. But they just have far less meaning than many will have you believe.

There are ‘best bets’ when it comes to teaching practice; Shaun Allison and I have written about challenge, explanation, modelling, lots of practice, feedback and questioning in our book Making Every Lesson Count. Nevertheless, there are no silver bullets and learning remains confusing and, at times, illogical.

Let’s enjoy it for what it is.


Posts with a similar theme:

You win some, you lose some

GCSE results and the stories we tell ourselves

The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit?


I have always struggled with teaching poetry. My lessons regularly leave me with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and an unanswered question: Why didn’t they quite get it? I think the reason lies in a delicate problem that all English teachers face daily.

How much should I tell them and how much should I elicit from them?

There’s no easy answer, but I think there are some serious flaws with a teaching approach that relies too heavily on the elicitation method, especially when starting out on a study of challenging poetry. It’s worth considering how we prepare to teach a new poem. If you are anything like me you will read it a few times, Google a few lines you are unsure about and discuss any tricky bits with your colleagues. This week, as I’ve been preparing to teach Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’, a colleague has helped me grasp the meaning of the poem’s tricky penultimate verse. (Cheers Russ!)

In truth, even as the ‘expert’ in the classroom I look for outside support to help me shape my interpretation.

If it is tough for me, it is likely to be even tougher for very many of my students. The problem with asking for students’ interpretations is that, more often than not, they are either non-existent (I don’t know … ), completely wrong (Ozymandias is about a war in the desert) or over-simplistic (Ozymandias is about time). Too often, one or two bright sparks in the room carry the class while the rest hopelessly try to guess the ideas I am holding back from them.

That said, I think it would be a mistake if students were not to experience the sense of satisfaction that comes from finding truth, meaning and even beauty in a jumble of words that once appeared incomprehensible. A problem we cannot solve taps into our natural sense of curiosity. It’s an itch we need to scratch.

So here are three very simple ways I am trying to solve my dilemma.

1. The first is a must and will come as no surprise. Give them a hook. It could be an introduction to a theme or context. In our department, we are enjoying finding literary fiction and non-fiction texts to act as thematic hooks. This week, however, to introduce ‘Ozymandias’ I used a series of images of Barack Obama, each one a little smaller than the previous, and each labelled with a year from 2015 to 3015. By 3015, the screen was a blank page. The message was clear: given time, Obama’s current power and influence will have fizzled, inevitably, into nothing.

2. Next, I read the poem out loud and, after this, they read it themselves. Their job is to do four things:

1) Circle and label anything of interest – this might be related to language, themes or anything that takes their fancy.
2) Draw a square around anything they do not understand.
3) Write a comment about any patterns they notice.
4) Make a link to another text they have read this year.

Now, of course, this task offers up the possibility of misunderstandings and misconceptions. Students do – modestly – seem to benefit from exlicit modelling of how to approach a new poem. My colleague, Bridget Norman, talks about developing ‘reading resilience’ – or how we get our students to keep going even when syntax and vocabulary are difficult.

Once students have had a go, I find out what they do and do not understand and then, without shame, I tell them what the poem really means – usually through annotating the poem on the board and explaining the finer details. Sometimes I will have to tell students they are completely wrong. Sometimes I will develop their nascent good ideas. Sometimes I will give them more of a say as their initial ideas are strong.

3. My third strategy is to have them answer carefully scaffolded ‘tight questions’ that allow them to think deeply about the text but ensure that their answers are likely to be good.

Take these two questions:

a) What does ‘sneer of cold command’ demonstrate about Ozymandias?
b) How does the phrase ‘sneer of cold command’ demonstrate that Ozymandias was a cruel leader?

Even though the first question is more open and will elicit a wider range of responses, the second question is more likely to lead to accurate and analytical answers. While the first question allows for freedom, question two steers them towards explaining the impact of ‘sneer’ and ‘cold’. Try it. It encourages finely focused language analysis and helps them to hone their critical writing style.

Here’s a few others I have used this week:

How do the words ‘boundless and bare’ show us that Ozymandias’ power and influence have gone?
How does the enjambment in the simile ‘spits like a tame cat/Turned savage’ create a sense of surprise?
Why does the metaphor ‘space is a salvo’ create the sense that the wind is attacking from all angles?


It is very possible that you have read this post and disagreed with me.

Perhaps you think that we need to teach students to develop their own interpretations. I agree – that should be our ultimate goal. But how can you know what a sophisticated interpretation of poetry looks like if you have not studied a number of sophisticated interpretations beforehand?

You might argue that a poem does not have one set meaning and all interpretations are valid. Again, I agree – we should teach alternative interpretations. Nevertheless, it is also true that some interpretations are stronger, more robust and more sophisticated than others.

Another reasonable complaint is that the new GCSE exams require students to read ‘unseen poems’ – shouldn’t we give them as much freedom as possible to prepare them for this? Once again, we share the same end goal. However, a huge factor of reading ability is the knowledge a student brings to their reading. To read a difficult poem successfully, they will need wide background knowledge and strong domain knowledge of the main conventions of poetry. If they do not read poetry in their spare time, they are very unlikely to develop the latter without the experience gleaned from the clear and direct teaching of many, many previous poems.


This is what I’m thinking about at the moment. Please feel free to add your thoughts below.


Related posts:

Can we teach students how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge